VPN vs Proxy: What’s the Difference?

On the surface VPNs and Proxy Servers appear to be similar. Both allow you to connect to a remote server and use it as their conduit to the web. There are however, very important fundamental differences.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are much more secure and reliable than Proxies. On the surface they appear to be similar. Both allow you to connect to a remote server and use it as their conduit to the web. There are however, very important fundamental differences.

Understanding the Fundamentals

In almost all cases, a proxy simply acts like an information gateway. Your data passes through it before being routed to wherever it needs to go. Think of it as an open pit stop in the middle of the road. It offers no shelter either at the stop or anywhere along the way.

Compared to that, a VPN is an end-to-end service. While providing you with that same pit stop, it shelters the data which is being transported along the way. That means from your device to the VPN server, then from there to the destination point – your data remains safe.

Differences between proxy server, VPN, and bare Internet connection.

How VPN and Proxy Servers Work

There are a number of core areas that make up a VPN service. These include private servers, encryption, and secure communication protocols. Working together, VPN services offer you more benefits than proxy services.

Each of the core areas contribute towards the overall objective of increasing your privacy and security while connected to the web. The VPN service first encrypts your connection request and then sends it to their server via a secure communications tunnel. 

The VPN server then decrypts the data and routes it to the location it is meant to go to. When it receives data back, it is encrypted again and then sent back to you. At that point, your device decrypts the data for the final time.

Proxy servers on the other hand are typically not designed with this level of security in mind. Most proxy servers which are open for use are designed to simply let you spoof your IP address. 

This means your data is sent to its destination using the IP address of the proxy server, not your own. Along the way, there is no encryption or any other safeguards, so any data which gets intercepted can be read.

Various Types of Proxies Do Exist

Do not be mistaken that all proxies are inherently bad. What I’ve discussed above is specific to open web proxies, which is what most of us have access to. Proxy servers are also used in private, secure environments and can work well in these.

1. HTTP (or Web) Proxies

This is the most common type of proxy server we encounter. As mentioned, they are built simply to help you ‘adopt’ a different IP to use the Internet with. Web proxies offer little to no protection at all and in fact, can be dangerous to use.

2. SOCKS Proxies

Where web proxies only handle data connections to websites, SOCKS proxies are able to handle all types of data. This means that aside from browser traffic, those carrying out other activities like P2P (torrenting, or file sharing) can also make use of them.

Dangers of Free Proxy Servers

For those of you who may have searched for a proxy server before, you will notice that a great number of them are offered for free. If you’ve tried to use them though, you will find that the connections offered are often problematic.

It is understandable that some may consider using a free proxy due to budget constraints. However, it is important to understand the possibility of significant dangers in doing so.

Offered by Unknown Sources

Most freely available proxy servers aren’t offered by reputable companies. In fact, they are often hidden behind masks. The few that are legitimate often make use of the offer of a free proxy service to encourage you to move on to their VPN service instead. Consider it bait, if you will.

Data Theft

Servers of any kind cost money to run. Aside from the hardware, software, and time needed to do it, bandwidth costs a lot as well. Those offering free proxy servers for use have to recover their investment somehow. One of the ways that is done by stealing your data and selling it.

Logging and Timestamps

If you’re depending on a proxy server for security, don’t. Although on the surface you’re hiding behind the proxy – if that server gets compromised or seized by authorities, the game is up. Most will keep information that makes all your activities traceable directly back to you.

Vulnerability and Threats

Since proxy servers aren’t typically offered by reputable sources, security on the servers themselves is often weak. This can be seen by the increasing number of malware threats specifically designed to exploit vulnerabilities in proxy servers.

Why a VPN is Better Than a Proxy

Do not underestimate the advantages that VPNs offer just because the key difference seems to be encryption. In today’s highly connected world, online security is a massive area of focus. Consider these facts;

Aside from encryption, VPN services also have other built-in safeguards that Proxy servers do not. Even if they do, they are often unable to meet the same levels that VPN services provide them at. 

This includes:

Secure Servers

Taking anonymity to new heights, some top VPN brands have gone to extreme lengths to assure privacy. Part of this is the use of RAM-only servers, such as ExpressVPN and Surfshark offer. Once the servers are rebooted, and data contained on them is immediately flushed.

No-logging Guarantees

In many cases, reputable VPN service providers will also provide ‘no-logging’ guarantees. This is often listed in their terms of service as an assurance that no identifying connection logs will ever be recorded. Some premium VPNs even have their servers independently audited for this.

Malware Protection

Instead of only relying on you to have Internet security applications, some VPN services include this as well. For example, NordVPN CyberSec blocks websites that are known to host malware.

Advanced Geo-unblocking

While you may think IP spoofing is enough to get you past geo-blocks, the type offered by proxies doesn’t always work. This is especially true with services like Netflix which take proxy detection and blocking to the next level. Reputable VPN Services often work with these services.

Avoid Traffic Shaping

Because VPN traffic is encrypted, it can help you avoid traffic shaping activities carried out by some Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This means you can run your line at full speed even as others are being slowed to a crawl since the ISP essentially cannot read your data packets.

VPN Services Are Not Always Expensive

For those whose concern about VPN services primarily have to do with price, you might be surprised to know that there are free VPN services as well. While these are a viable choice, understand that the same rule of thumb that applies to free proxy servers, do to free VPNs as well.

Remember this: The cost of setting up any of these services is not cheap. If you aren’t paying for something, the cost still needs to be recouped from somewhere!

Free VPN services fall into two broad categories; 100% Free VPN and Limited Free VPN. The former is the type you need to be aware of. There’s simply no free lunch in this world. 

The latter offer limited free services as a means to tempt you to move on to a premium plan. These are legitimately free services and some are indeed, highly usable. For example, Windscribe offers a free VPN service with a limitation of 10GB/mo of data.

If you are looking for a free plan, find one that also offers premium step-up plans. I’d like to suggest an alternative though, and that is to consider one of the premium plans instead. There are fantastic choices in this category available for a pittance.

Surfshark for example, is a relatively newer service that has been a star-studded performer so far. I’ve used it for over a year now and for the price I paid at the time it’s simply wonderful. Even at its current increased price – this is a deal that’s really hard to beat.

Conclusion: VPN or Proxy?

By now you’re probably realizing that using a VPN service is a much better idea. That would be true. More importantly, the takeaway is that improving your online security can be done relatively easily and inexpensively.

For less than the price of what a cup of coffee nowadays costs, you can secure your data, keep your identity safer, and browse the web in much greater peace of mind. These choices are real and do exist.

I hope that by sharing this information, you’ll consider your options carefully and protect yourself as best you can. We can make the right choices moving forward and contributing towards making the web a safer place.